Welcome to the blog for Ali's Craft Studio by Alison Lloyd. I am a crafter of peelable stained glass designs & handpainted keyrings and I look forward to sharing with you my news direct from Kent (the Garden of England)

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Wednesday, 11 June 2014

An Uber Battle… Warning, a bit of a rant coming up!

I’m sure it will not have escaped many people’s notice that today has seen a demonstration by taxi drivers in opposition to new technology which creates a taxi meter for any car to provide a taxi service by joining up with the firm Uber. You may have only heard about the London protest but it is a multi-country issue with protests in France, Spain, Germany and beyond. What seems like a ‘we don’t want any competition’ debate on the surface goes much deeper than that. Uber have been banned in Berlin & just been issued a ‘cease & desist’ orders and massive fines for having illegal unlicenced drivers in a number of US states so this ‘new kid on the block’ may not be as innocent as it may first seem.

As some of you may know, my husband is black cab driver so I have been well aware of the issues surrounding today’s protest & the pros and cons of ‘Uber’ and similar have been well documented in our home over the past few months.  I don’t always agree with the ‘its going to kill our business’ debates which inevitably crop up from time to time so I don’t automatically fall on the side of the cabbies when it comes to these discussions.  Reading the general views on social media and news sites today, it has become clear to me that many people don’t seem to realise that the issue cabbies have isn’t with Uber at all – it is actually with Transport for London (TfL) who are the department in control of issuing licences for private hire vehicles, setting fares charged by the meters in the black cabs (they’re the ones you should moan at if you think the fares are high – cabbies have no control over this at all!) and it is TfL who are not prepared to recognise that the smartphone app which estimates the fare for your Uber journey is simply a high-tech taxi meter (something that is actually against the law in London for any vehicle other than a licenced hackney carriage AKA a black cab!)

Now a High Court Judgment has been requested on the issue – is it a meter or not?  This is something that is likely to take months & a lot of money to decide when TfL could just bite the bullet & decide this themselves. Interestingly Uber themselves refer to the metre in their own user instructions so it does beggar belief that this is even in question! Seems to me like they’re scared to rock the apple cart of the new ‘big money boys’ (Uber have funding by Google & Goldman Sachs & are worth over 18 BILLION Dollars)

There do seem to be two very distinct camps – #TeamBlackCab and #TeamUber & I have tried as best I can to look at this without prejudice for either side.  There are, of course, arguments for and against both sides and I have tried to find as much information as I can to form an unbiased opinion if this is possible.  I have no issue with mini cabs or, in principle, an app which enables you to book a taxi – I am pretty sure that it won’t be too long before the days of the mini cab office is over and all bookings are made using technology – its the way things progress & I’m all for embracing change, after all we would all be lost these days without technology which not too many years ago seemed like a leap into the unknown.  However, there has to be an air of caution here - I do fear we are in danger of a return to the bad old days of booking a cab using a private hire company, this time using an ‘app’ rather than the old fashioned telephone, only to be greeted by a clapped out old motor which seems to be held together using every sticky tape known to man driven by an equally clapped out looking driver with a fag hanging out the side of his mouth! Oh the joys!

Ref-1034Black cabs fares can be higher than those of the mini cab (although not always – did you know that the minimum fare for companies like Addison Lee is now a whopping £11!!) they are, however very transparent – you can see the fare clearly throughout the journey (not always the most joyful experience seeing it clocking up before your very eyes!) and there does still seem to be the view that some still report the classic ‘Nah, I don’t go south of the river’ response (which I have to say I have never had this happen myself – and I’ve lived ‘south of the river’ for many years – maybe I’m missing out on a life experience!!)  Black cab drivers are often thought of as ‘thinking they rule the road’ and rude. However, as my hubby says, “if I’m not on a job, by all means be angry if I cut in front of you, I will be as courteous as anyone without a passenger but when someone is in the back, my focus is on getting them where they want to be which may include having to do a U-Turn or go for the gap to keep moving.”  Think of it this way, if there is a passenger in the back, they are more than likely wanting to get to their destination quickly & may well be making that point in a rather vocal manner – for the cabbie on a job, sitting in traffic waiting to be let out by other vehicles is actually earning them more money but the passengers need comes first.  Sadly, not all drivers share this view and can give the profession a bad reputation but there are plenty of people on the road who don’t drive a taxi who more than push their luck when it comes to the rules of the road.

One thing I never realised until hubby went through the unbelievable rigours of learning ‘the knowledge’ is that there are ‘zones’ in which they can (& can’t) pick up passengers on the street – it suddenly explained all those cabs without passengers in the back who sailed past me in London as I stood trying to flag them down & waving my hand like a mad woman all those years ago when I was a regular cab user. For example, hubby has a suburban licence – Bromley & Lewisham in Kent – he can take a passenger anywhere they would like to go but after dropping off he can’t put his light on to pick up another passenger until he is back within the boundary of his ‘patch’.  London drivers have more of a carte blanche and can work anywhere but sitting in a long queue of taxis in a local rank is less appealing than the much busier London streets.  But at least they can have their light on all the way back!  Oh, and incase you didn’t know, you can hail a black taxi on any street as long as their ‘For Hire’ light is on – some people didn’t seem to realise that this doesn’t just apply to central London.

So in this particular argument, I'm 100% #TeamBlackCab - what people don't seem to grasp is that unregulated taxis can be uninsured, unsafe and for me as risky as hitch-hiking - you have no idea who you are getting in this small space with! Black cab drivers are regulated to within an inch of their lives & for me, that gives me confidence as a passenger.  I read a very interesting article from a New York journalist who had some interesting views on how safe women are getting in a Uber taxi – seems there are quite a few tales that would make anyone stop & think twice about what personal information you are sharing & who you are sharing it with.  (If you want to read the article you will find it here : Are you safe in your Uber?)

It is very interesting to see the increase in negative reports in cities where Uber have been established for a while. From drivers accepting fares only to be suddenly disappear when a better one turns up then reporting the customer has cancelled their job (which then incurs a nice cancellation fee from your credit card), drivers going the wrong way & refusing to follow customer's directions or use their much reported Sat Nav as they 'know better' and of course the obligatory disappearance of the shiny new cars much advertised by Uber as they take on drivers in their own vehicles.  Oh, and it seems that customer service is an unknown quantity at Uber HQ - no contact numbers & e-mails ignored or simply posted on Facebook & openly mocked by their CEO (I kid you not!).  The list does go on and on! I definitely get the feeling that once they have got their foot in the door of a new city with their flash, super smooth service they simply rub their hands with glee and head off to a new location whilst leaving their customers to fend for themselves!

Surge Pricing - get ready for Uber high fares!
Having read & viewed a lot of information regarding Uber, I await the backlash from their 'anyone can become a driver' attitude and cleverly hidden surge pricing system which means a passenger could end up paying fares of up to 8x that of the black cab at busy times (i.e. when the weather isn't so nice or evenings!)  As you don't get an agreed fare at the start of your journey or have any way of seeing the fare during your trip, your pre-registered credit/debit card can get pretty hammered fairly quickly & you cannot cancel the transaction! (Check out the reviews on Yelp.com for some frankly staggering tales!) The reported 850% increase in user registrations that everyone seems to see as a major positive for Uber actually just means that two things are likely to happen: 1. Fares will skyrocket as everyone tries to use the service - look out for 24-hour a day surge pricing due to high demand - and 2. as available vehicles become harder to find, a mass-recruit of new drivers will be undertaken to cover the demand (in the US a booking by a festival organiser for 50 Uber taxis was covered by finding drivers on Craigslist!) I was also very interested (slightly disturbed) by the head of Uber London evading the question as to whether they pay UK taxes – they have registered in Holland which has a negligible rate of tax – there are definitely comparisons with Starbucks, Amazon and (co-incidentally a large investor in Uber?) Google with their highly-criticised tax-evasion tactics.  For a company just valued at 18.4 Billion Dollars, a tidy saving indeed for them but not so good for the UK tax payer who will inevitably end up covering the deficit.

I'm not against change and, after listening to the arguments of the black cabbies regarding this issue, I am certain that neither are they. They do not have a monopoly as seems to have been voiced – mini cabs have been around for years & working quite amicably alongside but when a law is in place and a company comes along & breaks that law, seemingly without raising a question from those who should be ensuring this does not happen, it is bound to cause a rift.  The demonstrations are not against Uber but against TfL and their refusal to make the ruling about the controversial taxi meter which seems to be the backbone of Uber’s business model - there can't be one rule for them & one for another!  I despair at the 'lower the regulations' calls - surely this is completely backwards! I think regulations for all hire companies should be RAISED to equal those of the black cabs - no more flouting the rules, no more vehicles that should be condemned, drivers who are all CRB checked & therefore creating an all round safer environment for all concerned.  Just to clear one thing up though… I don’t agree with strike action – never have, never will.  It causes disruption to the wrong people so whilst I am on the side of the cabbies, I don’t agree that striking is the way to go (although it has brought the subject to the public attention).

So, for me, when in London or its suburbs my taxi of choice will always be an iconic, highly regulated, insured and safe hackney carriage!  Oh, and just to shatter that other misconception regarding black cab drivers…. they are NOT rolling in money – they work extraordinarily hard just to cover the costs incurred meeting the regulations imposed upon them, including two MOTs a year, CRB checks, licence renewals and very high vehicle costs. I know many will just think ‘well if they don’t like it they shouldn’t do it’ but then where would we be – one of the iconic images of London would just die out.  But, some stereotypes are much nearer the truth… most do love a good old moan or gossip about whatever the latest big news story is!! Go on, next time you’re stuck in traffic – get into a good debate about the state of the economy, the weather, sports, the state of the roads or just about anything else you can think of – probably not the best idea to mention Uber unless it is a really, really long journey though - you won’t regret it!

OK… rant over – it’s safe to come back out from behind the sofa!!

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